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Stevie Wonder at the MEN Arena

Could Ben Patey's musical hero live up to his expectations?

Published on October 6th 2008.

Stevie Wonder at the MEN Arena

In some ways, going to watch a musical great is a huge risk. Firstly, there’s the danger that they may not live up to your incredibly high expectations. There's also a worry that if they do perform even to a smidgen of their ability, it may turn you into a musical snob for the rest of your days, reluctant to listen to anything that fails to reach that melodious zenith.

When Wonder did extend the outros, it wasn’t for indulgence but rather for audience participation. And we didn’t need much encouragement. The men were given special parts. The women too. The parts were brought together. We were all making sweet music together. We were great.

When you're off to one of Stevie Wonder's gigs, the risks increase tenfold. A true legend in the unembellished sense of the word, he could embarrass most musicians with his eyes closed. Ok, Ok. Not the greatest analogy but you get the drift. He's good.

So here I was at the MEN arena and somewhere within the building was my biggest hero of all time. Stevie Wonder – the first step on my path to music fixation.

The tide of fervour created by the Mexican waves finally brought down the lights in the arena and a huge band walked out, with Wonder clad in traditional African robes, the trademark braids down to his waist.'Master Blaster (Jammin’)' immediately had everyone up on their feet and there were loud cheers when Wonder manipulated the lyrics to show support for Barack Obama.

“We want the world to come together, starting with the USA,” sang Wonder, reminding us that behind the great artist also lies a great humanitarian, a man who has used his enormous talent to crusade against apartheid and world hunger and who has campaigned tirelessly for racial harmony.Unfortunately, the anthem for racial harmony wasn’t to feature on the billing. Not unless Sir Paul was waiting in the wings.

Another of Wonder’s past duetting partners, Michael Jackson, once provided backing vocals on the delectable 'All I Do (is think about you)' which Wonder delivered a knock-out version of. One of the backing singers given responsibility for covering Jackson’s parts was his daughter Aisha Morris – the subject matter of the baby celebratory 'Isn’t She Lovely?'. Morris later sang a solo accompanied by her father. We all agreed that she was indeed bloody lovely.

My main worry before the gig was that Wonder may have chosen to over-elaborate on some of his outros, something musicians tend to do to keep themselves interested when they’ve played the same song a million times. However, the extended ending I did want to hear was the one to 'All I Do'. If you usually like a bit of disparagement in your music reviews, you may as well stop reading now. Because that’s where my criticism begins and ends. Yes, the outro in one song wasn’t quite long enough.

“Not that I’m complaining,” said one man in the toilets after the concert. “But he left a lot of songs out tonight. That’s how fantastic his back catalogue is.”

Yet, in a set that lasted nearly three hours, he managed to cram in all the big hitters from the likes of Innervisions and the seminal Songs in the Key of Life. The vocal on 'Living for the City' was simply outstanding. In fact, on the off chance you've never listened properly to that particular song, do it today. Do it right now in fact. It's one of the best male vocals you’ll ever hear.

When Wonder did extend the outros, it wasn’t for indulgence but rather for audience participation. And we didn’t need much encouragement. The men were given special parts. The women too. The parts were brought together. We were all making sweet music together. We were great. Well, we were in the presence of greatness anyway.Of course, behind every brilliant musician there’s usually a brilliant band. And as you’d expect from a musician of Wonder’s aptitude, only the finest would be considered. They were, without question, the best band I’ve seen live, better even than Prince’s fantastic band that backed him on his run at the O2 Arena last year.

There were three sets of percussion alone. Three keyboards, two guitars, backing singers… you name it. Wonder even found time for a cameo on the talk box à la Roger Troutman. Youngsters may recognise Troutman’s work on 2Pac and Dr Dre’s 'California Love' while the more sophisticated musical palate may recall Zapp and Roger’s talk box- infused 'More Bounce to the Ounce'.

And talking of bouncing, whenever the crowd got too carried away with a particularly funky bass line, Wonder would bring the tempo down again, going through some of his slower hits. 'Overjoyed', 'Ribbons in the Sky', 'Knocks Me Off My Feet'... all unbelievable songs that the Robbie Williamses of this world would give a right testicle for.

He signed off with a run of 'My Cherie Armour', 'Signed Sealed Delivered', 'Sir Duke', 'I Wish', 'Isn't She Lovely', 'Do I Do', 'I Just Called to Say I Love You' (cue thousands of people reaching for their mobiles), 'Superstition' and 'As'. Not bad huh? In fact, as a back catalogue goes, it’s pretty much unassailable.

In fact Kanye West said of his own work in 2005, “I’m not trying to compete with what’s out there now. I’m really trying to compete with Innervisions and Songs in the Key of Life...Why not set that as your bar?”

The likes of Kanye, and anyone else for that matter, can look at this gig and consider the bar well and truly raised. Beat that.

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26 comments so far, continue the conversation, write a comment.

AnonymousOctober 6th 2008.

I was at the MEN Arena on 11 sept. It was outstanding to put it mildly! But then Stevie is the best in the world!!

scooperOctober 6th 2008.

The Concert was phenominal you knew you were in the presence of a true legend. I was crying in the last hour as the old ones brought back so many memories of growing up . I never thought I'd be lucky enough to see him & I was not dissapointed.Great review.

An another Stevie fanOctober 6th 2008.

Where were you for the first 2 hours of the gig? The gig was fantastic from start to finish

GordoOctober 6th 2008.

Well said Sally, beautifully written.

Dawn WallaceOctober 6th 2008.

What a fantastic review. I have been waiting my lifetime to see Stevie Wonder, my father dedicated the song Golden Lady to my mother along time ago and Stevie has been part of the family ever since. Stevie Wonder is and always will be king in my home. I would describe the concert to a fantastic dream of musical perfection, everyword that came out of his mouth was relevant to me and each musical note was truly music to my soul, what a night.

RaceOctober 6th 2008.

I tried to hide the tears for the 1st 15 mins but these were tears of a long forfilled dream and he was worth every one of them.

LolaOctober 6th 2008.

Amazing night that I have been waiting for since I was little. I am sick of people saying they were dissapointed/bored/fell asleep. I dont think these people are really music fans but the kind who like 'a bit of everything' and bought dido's cd when she was out. Would have liked to hear That Girl & maybe a few more talking book tracks but I thought Stevie was fantastic and his voice was as good as ever.

AndyOctober 6th 2008.

Great review of an Excellent night. Few artists that I've seen live have put in half the effort to develop such a rapport with the assembled crowd, and this was a fairly big crowd. Okay not everybody up in the rafters were on their feet from the off, but the applause and apprecition for Stevie was immense throughout. Surprised no mention of the fantastic and song relevant lights and visuals. Amazing night both me an mi Dad, (bought him a ticket for Fathers Day),won't be forgetting for a long while.

stevie fanOctober 6th 2008.

after going to see stevie wonder on tues evening i can only say i was dissapointed the first 2 hours of the show was boring as i looked around the arena hardly anybody was up dancing i think for £65 per ticket i was ripped offSORRY MR WONDER

demon bordelloOctober 6th 2008.

Was at the gig on Tuesday, was apprehensive but got to say Stevie delivered, absolutely amazing. As for the participation - We were given a singing lesson by stevie wonder. That doesn't happen everyday!!

Dj Carl KennedyOctober 6th 2008.

I was at the gig and thought it was immense and i share the views that i was also experiencing nervous expectation of seeing such a legend live after so many years of waiting . The show didn't disappoint , only from my selfish perspective "lately" was missing and would have completed this most perfect of set lists .Im gutted i didnt double up and get the october tickets too , if you have youre in for a rare funky treat - enjoy !

mark mOctober 6th 2008.

Mark thinks that mark actually meant excellent

Daniel O'ConnorOctober 6th 2008.

Hey, Ben. Great review, but you should maybe give Steve a little more credit! Steve was on the TalkBox *years* before Roger Troutman. Your review implies that he was giving him a tribute. Have a look at David Frost interviewing Stevland back in the early 70's: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VX5v-S_jGD4

Sally EdmundsonOctober 6th 2008.

Thank God for intelligent comment. The Times review of the NEC gig was at best OK and at worst written by someone for whom the sky would doubtless be the wrong shade of blue.Many have commented that he spoke too long, he said too much about his Mother's death, there was too much audience singalong.HE PLAYED FOR 3 HOURS! The musicianship was fantastic and the absolute bonus for me was the instrumental of Chick Corea's Spain - Fanbloodytastic! You either get Stevie Wonder and his ilk or you don't. His songs are just the complete crafted package from the harmonies, the orchestration to the lyrics and the rhythms. All the singers were superb in their own right but his daughter had the resonant classic black perfection of the Ella Fitzgerald's of this world. She didn't need to warble her way around a note and demonstrate her range - her voice was so beautiful that at times she almost sounded like a flute. I'd buy her albums.He made me laugh, he made me cry, sing and bop my ass off.....what else is there?

Paul ColemanOctober 6th 2008.

Was at the gig last night and agree with every word of the review. An outstanding night and great to see everyone up at the end

snake plisskenOctober 6th 2008.

Had centre stage 3rd row seats for the visit of a true legend. I must admit that i thought it may be saccharine and yes he did indulge himself a little but when higher ground, living for the city etc chords kicked in everyone around me was up and dancing in a nano second.I've seen most of my heros , Marvin , Ray Charles , Solomon Burke , Eddie Floyd , Edwin Starr , Terry Callier etc etc and Stevie didn't disappoint.3 hours long at his age , not a bad performance in my opinion. James Brown , Solomon Burke and plenty of others rested during thier performances in later years and let the band carry it for them. Top night Stevie , Thanks.

Geoff DOctober 6th 2008.


MarkOctober 6th 2008.

Informative and balanced, excelent!

KateOctober 6th 2008.

I was at the show on Tuesday, and what a performance! The review above is well written and highlights just what a show it was. Fantastic. The band were absolutely amazing. Stevie did a great job of involving the audience and making you feel like you can sing. I wasn't impressed with the hecklers tho when Stevie was talking about his late mother and dedicating a song to her, just don't do it! All in all an amazing night, Stevie's voice just gets better!

BenOctober 6th 2008.

Cheers Daniel. That was brilliant!

wonderfullladyOctober 6th 2008.

You've got to get them in before they pop off... getting that glowy nervy feeling now...Roll on 3rd Oct.

Sally EdmundsonOctober 6th 2008.

Thanks Gordo. I think what riled me most is if you're going to complain about minutiae like that then fair comment for a gig lasting only the pre-requisite 1 hour 20 (if you're lucky) but 10 mins in 3 hours is more than fair! plus let's not forget that most bands enjoy the luxury of being able to see their audience's appreciation and if singing along or echoing his voice is the only way to gauge your following then I'm all for it! I just wish I could sing like his daughter!!!

tomOctober 6th 2008.

As critical reviews go, it's extremely biaised by personal judgement (!), but in terms of whetting my appetite for the 02 tonight, you've hit the mark.Thanks for the review and I can't wait to see my musical hero tonight.

SaharaOctober 6th 2008.

The best concert i have ever ever been too. Stevie is a GOD !! (He sounded better live than on the CD's)

MattOctober 6th 2008.

I was there, it was amazing, and yes the band were ridiculous.

wonderfulladyOctober 6th 2008.

fri 3rd October. Well, what can I say? Truly amazing, Effortless performance, it really hits home the brilliance of the songwriting of this man. Every song brought a feeling of elation. The pivotal song I feel was visions - such depth, soul and quality, my whole persona had a warm glow. I was quite in awe when he was playing superstition, seeing those digits up close playing the infamous keyboard notes... I was there.

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